CITY BEAT: Intermodal Madness 

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Central Station downtown used to be a busy train station back when lots of people rode trains. But it's not about trains any more. Now it's an apartment building with a small Amtrak office, and the waiting room is often used for parties and wedding receptions. Since a few months ago, Central Station has also been the South Main Station of the Memphis Police Department, with 200 officers and scores of police cars in the parking lot that was ostensibly built for Amtrak passengers. The upper level of the parking lot is one of the weirdest things downtown -- an outdoor waiting area under a metal roof the length of a football field. The benches are empty, usually. The parking lot is empty, usually (except on Saturdays, when there is a farmers market). But every few minutes a MATA bus headed south on Front Street makes a left turn into the parking lot, takes a lonely and utterly pointless lap around the outdoor waiting area the length of a football field, exits the parking lot, turns back north, and goes on its way.

Welcome to the intermodal transit facility, envisioned 15-20 years ago by delusional federal officials as a hub where buses, cars, trains, and taxi cabs would load and unload passengers for God knows what reason and bring prosperity to downtown Memphis. Which it did, sort of, although not at all in the way it was supposed to. In fact, Central Station is a party room, apartment building, police station, art gallery, and parking lot where Amtrak's City of New Orleans makes its daily departure headed south at 6:50 a.m. Between the train station boondoggle and the river, the South Bluff and South End neighborhoods have brought more than 1,000 new residents downtown. They don't ride buses or trains, but they're there. Would they be there if the train station was still the spooky wreck it was 20 years ago? Maybe, maybe not.

Most of this was paid for with federal funds available for mass transportation, the same funding that was used for the parking garage at FedExForum that is suddenly in the news. Or, rather, suddenly in the news in a big way because it was in the news a little bit four years ago when Shelby County commissioners John Willingham and Walter Bailey were squawking and demanding an audit that never happened.

Federal funds for mass transit were also used 20 years ago to landscape and repave the crumbling bricks of the downtown Main Street Mall, formerly the Mid-America Mall, and to put in trolleys that were supposed to carry working passengers but actually carry tourists and people going to special events. Again, the result was more positive than negative, although not in the way that was intended.

About $70 million in federal transportation funds were also used for the east-west trolley extension along Madison Avenue to Cleveland. It is hardly used at all, but if the medical research park at the old Baptist Hospital site comes to pass, part of it could serve a useful purpose some day.

Federal transportation funds paid for the Bluff Walk downtown, thanks to a wrinkle in the law that requires some expenditures for pedestrian and bicycle transit. The benefits have been more toward beautification than bikes.

And federal transportation funds paid for the bus terminal at the north end of downtown. This project actually functions as a bus terminal, with real passengers sitting in a real waiting room to ride real buses to get to real places.

So, let's review. We have Central Station for parties, faux farmers, and apartments; the parking garage at the FedExForum for the Memphis Grizzlies; the downtown trolley for tourists; the east-west trolley for bus drivers and, possibly, future medical researchers; the Bluff Walk for pedestrians; and the bus terminal at the north end of downtown for people who ride the bus. Six federally funded mass-transit projects, one of which actually provides and promotes regular mass transit. One for six, or about the same probability as Shaq hitting a free throw in the NBA playoffs. Your tax dollars at work.

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